Though it has been remade at least a half-dozen times for film and television, and at least twice for the stage, no adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1908 penny dreadful The Phantom of the Opera makes quite the same claim on the emotions as the original film of 1925. It's a good picture, in general--flying by in about 80 minutes under Rupert Julian's headlong direction, it remains one of the most accessible of all silents to the modern audience. What makes it a classic, however, is the dazzling performance of the great Lon Chaney Sr. in the title role. Chaney, who is said to have acquired his skill for pantomime by growing up with two deaf parents, was one of the greatest actors in the history of film. He isn't always recognized as such today because of the remoteness of his career (he made only one sound movie), his fixation with burying himself under torturous makeup to play grotesques and the regrettable condescension with which old-fashioned acting is now seen. Yet with the possible exceptions of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and John Hurt in David Lynch's The Elephant Man, no film actor ever gave soul to radical makeup like Chaney--and Karloff and Hurt both used their voices. Though some might claim his Quasimodo was superior, most would agree that Erik, the deformed, deranged denizen of the medieval catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, was Chaney's most indelible creation. The story, though it varies from version to version, is familiar in its basic elements: Erik, in love with the beautiful young singer Christine Daae, becomes her tutor from behind a mask. Two incidents are de rigueur at some point in each version--a chandelier is dropped from the ceiling, and Erik is unmasked, revealing a hideous countenance below.
Most versions romanticize, even sentimentalize, the tale, making Erik's love for Christine lofty and pure, la Beauty and the Beast. Chaney's interpretation was franker and grittier, more painfully human. His Erik is simply a stalker. He plays upon Christine's romantic fantasies of the dashing stranger who might be beneath the mask, but once Christine (Mary Philbin, maybe the loveliest heroine ever to be menaced in a horror film) succumbs to curiosity, like Bluebeard's wife, plucks the mask from his face and sees the animate skull below, he knows the game is up. He isn't wrong, either--she instantly rejects him.
It's at this famous moment, well into the film, that Chaney's performance really begins. What makes it great is precisely that Erik's love is so impure. He's the most sordid of all movie monsters, though the sordidness isn't sexual--it's simply possessive. Erik terrorizes Christine with grand yet immaculately controlled gestures which bring pantomimic life to all the furious, despairing self-pity of any man who knew he couldn't get the woman he wanted. The expressions on his face manifest the vindictive ugliness which the unrequited lover feels within. Laughing with wild, defiant hopelessness as the torch-bearing mob pursues him in the film's final scene, he's a true human monster--the angry spirit of the rejected, set free.
The Chaney version of The Phantom opens this weekend at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe. The 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday screenings will feature live-organ accompaniment (there will also be a showing on Monday night). If you've never seen the film on a screen, or at all, a better way to celebrate Halloween would be hard to find.